Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski visited Ketchikan on Monday, and sat down with some local media representatives to talk about issues affecting the region.’
Murkowski is unhappy with the U.S. Forest Service, and doesn’t mince words when talking about it.
“We’ve got the chief of the Forest Service who comes before the committee, he said what we need to do in these communities that were once timber dependent is we need to diversify,” she said. “Tourism is what it’s all about. And then, the Forest Service turns around and cuts the number of permits that the air taxi operators are able to offer tours – cut them from 25 percent from year prior?”
The state’s senior senator in Washington, D.C., also is worried about obtaining Forest Service permits for regional projects, including hydroelectric dams and mines. She said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell needs to visit Southeast Alaska to understand why certain options, such as using helicopters for dam construction, aren’t practical.
“I don’t think he has any concept of how you do this in a place like the Tongass,” she said. “You don’t call it Misty Fiords for nothing. I said, ‘You need to come up and see. You need to understand what we’re dealing with.’ He’s looking to come up in August.”
But permitting isn’t the only issue Murkowski has with the Forest Service. Secure Rural Schools, which provides payments to communities affected by the decline in timber harvest, is another concern.
Those payments are dedicated to schools, and what the government decides to do with the program could have a serious impact on rural Alaska.
“It is a big deal, and right now I’m irritated in a big way at Chief Tidwell, who came before our committee a couple of weeks back and when asked about Secure Rural Schools and the fact that the payments went out in January before sequester was announced, and now they’re going to claw back those dollars that came out to the eligible states, including Alaska,” she said.
That’s about $800,000 distributed to Alaska that the agency wants back. Murkowski said that if the communities don’t, or can’t, return the money, the Forest Service had intended to assess fines and late fees.
Murkowski and other senators drafted a response, basically saying: “Don’t do that.” She said a reasonable alternative would be to simply withhold the amount owed from any future payments.
She adds that the Senate is working on a one-year “fix” for the Secure Rural Schools program, which may or may not be funded this coming year.
“What we’d really like to do is figure out long-term how we deal with this,” she said. “Many of us believe that the way you provide to meet the obligations under Secure Rural Schools is, you allow for more timber harvesting.”
Murkowski said that another senator also is looking into expanding revenue sharing. That would include on-shore renewable resources, such as wind farms, that are on public lands. She said revenue from those resources could be used for additional development projects.
During her one-hour news conference, Murkowski touched on a variety of topics, from sequestration to immigration. For the latter, a bipartisan group of senators is working on a reform package that she said should improve the current immigration system.
She also talked briefly about her role in the Senate, and her willingness to cross party lines. One example is a bill she has cosponsored with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden.
“Wyden and I just introduced last week a campaign finance disclosure bill that is designed to generate a lot of controversy on both sides,” she said. “His side is mad at him, because now they’ve got to do disclosure they don’t want to do. My side is mad at me because now they’ve got disclosure they don’t want to do. I think there needs to be disclosure when it comes to donations.”
Murkowski is on a whirlwind tour through Alaska. From Ketchikan, she’s headed to the Mat-Su Valley, then Anchorage, Fort Greely, Delta Junction, Glenallen, Fairbanks, Anchorage again and then back to Washington, D.C.